If "love trumps hate," where is the love (or at least, understanding) in the aftermath of Charlottesville?
It is important to recognize and affirm that white supremacist ideology is immoral, terrible, and dangerous. But what's missing from the conversation following Charlottesville is what's most needed: compassion.
Behind the white nationalist flags, heavy armor, and flaming tiki torches are deeply-troubled individuals crying for help.
Take it from a reformed neo-Nazi. Christian Picciolini joined a prominent skinhead group at age 14. By 18, he was leading the group. Now, 30 years after leaving the leaving the white supremacist movement, he runs a non-profit that helps people disengage from violent extremism.
After the Charlottesville violence, Picciolini told NPR's All Things Considered:
I think ultimately people become extremists not necessarily because of the ideology. I think that the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent. I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they're searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.
In Picciolini's case, he was coping with abandonment issues. Those who instigated violence and spewed hate in Charlottesville may be dealing with trauma, abuse, addiction, or untreated mental illness. The alleged driver of the car that plowed into a Charlottesville crowd that killed one woman and injured 19 others, James Alex Fields Jr., was raised by a single, paraplegic mother after his father was killed by a drunk driver before he was born.
The events in Charlottesville rightly horrified all of us. Officials and citizens are compelled to publicly denounce neo-Nazis, denounce Antifa, or denounce Trump for denouncing both sides. Now, protesters vow to "Make Racists Afraid Again." Internet warriors are attempting to identify and publicly shame white nationalist rally-goers. Punching Nazis is not only permissible but celebrated.
White supremacy has no place in political discourse. But white supremacist individuals are indeed Americans. And they are not likely to adopt a peaceful ideology after being doxxed, intimidated, and exiled.
At best, exiling these individuals from mainstream society feeds white supremacist recruitment rhetoric of "oppression," and pushes those discussions to isolated spaces where they can't be countered by reason and peace. At worst, it breeds a McCarthyist atmosphere which mistakes normal people and movements for hateful ones.
The latter is already happening. An Arkansas professor was misidentified as a Charlottesville rally attendee, forcing him to flee his home for the weekend. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called a "Patriot Prayer" rally planned in San Francisco a white supremacist gathering, despite it being organized by a Hispanic man and seven out of eight scheduled speakers being people of color.
To successfully reform white nationalists and those with other hateful ideologies, we should note how it's happened before. Picciolini writes in HuffPost: "Ultimately, receiving compassion from the people I least deserved it from when I least deserved it, was what helped me reconnect with society."
Even those of us who are not Christians can agree that Jesus said it best: Love your enemies.
That doesn't mean love their ideology or love their actions. It means considering the suffering and misfortune of the individuals who least deserve benevolence. It's far easier to ignore, shame, and even punch neo-Nazis. But rehabilitation, healing, and unity will only happen through conversation, understanding, and compassion.
Emily Larsen (@emilyelarsen) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a freelancer and a participant in the Charles Koch Institute's Media and Journalism Fellowship program. Previously, she was a program manager at Campus Reform.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.